Taking Polish Literature Out of Its Ghetto ‒ An Interview with Ursula Phillips
Translator of Polish literature Ursula Phillips speaks on her life-long fascination with Polish feminist writer Zofia Nałkowska, the differences between Polish and Russian literature, and those terribly difficult Polish names. And what a translator can actually do about them.
Mikołaj Gliński: Why did you decide to translate Zofia Nałkowska’s Choucas? It’s not a particularly prominent book by this author? I suppose some Polish readers would be even surprised to find out that such a book exists.
Ursula Phillips: It comes as part of my general programme of translating Polish women. I have been trying to be systematic about it but there is only so much that one person can do. I have been trying to identify which texts by women are the most interesting as literary works, not necessarily as feminist works. Choucas is one of them. Nałkowska is a writer I like and admire, and with such choices, it is often a personal, subjective decision.
I also try to choose works that are not necessarily, or not only related to Poland, in order to appeal to the wider audience abroad. But you are quite right to say that it is not particularly prominent among Polish readers. It is certainly not her best-known. I think this is possibly because people did not really understand what it was about and could not even pronounce the title. I have met Polish scholars who did not realize that it was a French word referring to a bird that lives in the High Alps. Possibly the whole thing seemed too strange and that is why it was neglected, whereas other novels by Nałkowska have received more attention, both in contemporary reviews and subsequent scholarship.
MG: Subtitled an ‘international novel’, Nałkowska’s book is sometimes compared to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. But Mann was dealing with society before WWI and writing about it afterwards. Nałkowska’s novel is set in a Swiss sanatorium in the 1920s. Was she influenced by Mann's book?
UP: The Magic Mountain was published in November 1924. Nałkowska was in Leysin, Switzerland, from February to April 1925. It is very unlikely that she would have read it already then; she does not mention it in her diary (Dzienniki 1899-1954). I think it is coincidental that the two books are set in a similar place, a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, in a similar society and milieu – representatives of bourgeois Europe living above the clouds in a rarefied atmosphere, where they talk freely and their national and political differences and national prejudices become apparent. It just happens to be very similar.
Nałkowska’s book is set in the 1920s, whereas Thomas Mann was portraying European society before World War I, writing about it afterwards. Her characters give a portrayal of the post-war world but mention many international and domestic conflicts.
Nałkowska actually knew Mann. He came to Warsaw at the invitation of the Polish PEN Club in 1927. There is an article about this visit by her in Wiadomości Literackie. As a representative of Polish writers, she was involved in the celebrations for him, and yet she never mentions her own Choucas in relation to him. It is possible that she realized that it was similar, but did not wish to demean her own, much shorter book through the comparison. In her diary she kept a good, though not comprehensive record of the things she was reading, and she rarely mentions Thomas Mann. Of course, she must have heard about Mann’s novel, which was reviewed in Wiadomości Literackie when it came out. I write about these links to Mann in my introduction to the translation.
MG: Nałkowska’s novel is written in a realist manner, replete with interesting psychological and social observations. Seemingly devoid of Polish context, it features quite surprising moments when this Polish context comes to the fore (if only rhetorically), like the reference to Wojski’s arcy-serwis (historic dinner service) in Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz? How does a translator go about that kind of problem?
UP: This kind of culturally specific reference is always difficult to transfer into a foreign context where the associations are not obvious to new readers, and may need to be explained. I wondered whether to eliminate the Wojski reference, as some translators might do. But it is there in the text and I do not feel free to remove it. And it also does indicate that Nałkowska herself envisaged her readership as primarily Polish. On the surface, it would seem there are few such references. I would suggest, however, that there is an important subtext legible between the lines. The references to various international conflicts, violence, hatred between different national groupings may also be a discreet warning about the treatment of national minorities or opponents of the new Polish state, recorded also in her contemporary diary. It was difficult for her to talk about these domestic issues more openly, so she articulates her concerns by analogy with international crises.
MG: One of the important leitmotifs to be found in the book is that of the Armenian genocide, the massacre of the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire of 1915. What did Nałkowska know about it?
UP: Her knowledge at the time of the Armenian events is striking. She picked this up from the Armenians she met in Leysin. In her diary, Nałkowska was constantly jotting down observations for later use in her fiction. For example, she might describe quite small details of places she visited, objects or people she encountered, and several years later these same details would appear in a novel. She did this with Choucas. While she was in Leysin she noted down conversations with Armenians who had been rescued and placed there by the Red Cross. The names of characters are changed, but their words are repeated. They were traumatized, and not necessarily suffering from tuberculosis but rather from post-traumatic stress disorder, though it was not called that then. In the novel one of the Armenian men reads from a book of evidence based allegedly on official Turkish documents. I am grateful to the librarian of the Armenian Institute in London for identifying this as a known published source.
MG: Was her knowledge about this Armenian genocide unique?
UP: No, I have been told that people in Poland knew about it. Meanwhile in Stefan Żeromski’s 1925 novel The Comming Spring (Przedwiośnie), there is a passage portraying the massacre of Armenians in Baku in 1918. I think there was always an awareness of Armenians in Poland, considering how many Armenians resided historically, say, in Lwów. So the theme is not quite as exclusive as I thought it was originally, but I was amazed, since there is not a lot of English language fiction of this period where the topic is broached. My translation came out in 2015, thus marking the 100th anniversary of the genocide, so it was quite topical, but this was pure serendipity, it was not my intention to publish the translation specifically at this time.
MG: This is interesting because Nałkowska subsequently became the author of Medaliony, one of the earliest literary works to deal with the atrocities of the Holocaust (in fact, this is where most of her contemporary literary renown comes from).
UP: Scholars have seen the connection. By the time the Nazis occupied Warsaw in 1939, Nałkowska had already been confronted with horror and was somehow mentally prepared for what she then experienced or witnessed. She lived in Warsaw throughout the occupation, though she left the city immediately before the outbreak of the Uprising on 1 August 1945. Then, after the war, along with several other writers, she was part of the official Commission for Investigating Nazi Crimes in Poland. It seems she was psychologically prepared because she was already aware that human beings were capable of such atrocities. From the time of the previous German occupation of Warsaw in 1915-1917, which she also experienced at first hand, she had understood war not as a contrast to peace but an extreme version of how human beings behave anyway. Her subsequent witnessing of the cruel treatment of prisoners in the Grodno prison in the early 1920s, as well as her meetings with the Armenian survivors, only confirmed her pessimistic view of human nature.
MG: Nałkowska is praised as a feminist writer. Yet this novel cannot be perceived as pushing a woman’s perspective. It isn’t particularly feminist...
UP: Well, it rather depends on how you understand feminism. Nałkowska was not directly involved in the women’s rights movement in Poland, not because she was against it, but because her emphasis was different. In her 1907 speech to the Polish Women’s Congress she had challenged the double standard regarding sexual relations accepted by conventional society, demanded equal sexual rights for women, and defended prostitutes. She was always deeply concerned with how life issues affected women, and in this respect she lived and wrote as a feminist, i.e. as someone who was sensitive to discrimination. In Choucas she addresses especially the theme of women’s ageing and rejection by society for no longer being attractive, including related topics of psychosomatic illness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. She introduces a character named Madame Saint-Albert who never gets over being abandoned by her husband, and even though married for a second time to a younger man who genuinely loves her, she cannot come to terms with the passing of youth. Madame Saint-Albert is fictional, but Nałkowska puts into her mouth precisely the words recorded at the time in the diary inspired by her own fear of ageing.
MG: Questions that relate to female existence are also very strong in Boundary, which just came out in English in your translation
UP: The complex plot of Boundary brings together two threads in the life of the young mayor of a Polish provincial town, Zenon Ziembiewicz, in the 1920s. On one level, the public, it traces how his political career is compromised once he crosses a crucial ethical boundary. Meanwhile, his private affair with a working-class woman (Justyna), leading to her decision to abort their child, and his concurrent dishonest treatment of his wife (Elżbieta), amply provide material for the narrator’s scrutiny both of the social and political reality of the reborn Polish state, and of issues affecting women, including sexual relations, marriage, motherhood, illness and ageing.
The whole of Chapter 3 is devoted to a description of Elżbieta’s aunt Cecylia Kolichowska and her group of lady friends, which is extremely ambiguous. Getting the right tone in the translation was a real challenge, because the images of the old women border on the grotesque and yet are seeped, at the same time, with enormous sympathy for them. It was important to preserve this duality. And this is Nałkowska all over. She shows something that is physically quite shocking, and yet at the same time you cannot help feeling genuine compassion. And I think this is the crux of her ethics. She was not a believer, but an agnostic. Empathy with suffering is the trigger for moral sense. This is very much present in Granica.
MG: Compared to Choucas, Boundary is much more related to the Polish context, addressing particular social problems typical of interwar Poland.
UP: Boundary is a contemporary novel, in the sense that it was written in reaction to what was going on in the Second Republic in the late 1920s and early 30s. Nałkowska was already writing it at the beginning of the 1930s. 1935 is the date of the first book edition but she had been working on it much earlier.
I have this theory that Boundary, along with other novels and stories written from the WW1 period through to the last novel Węzły życia (1948, 2nd edition 1954), basically form her critique of the interwar independent Republic. Her earliest novels were more obviously feminist, in the sense they were all about women, inspired by her own sense of herself as a woman and her sexuality, but her writing underwent a fundamental change around 1915-1916, due to the war. Now her gaze would be directed away from her own ego towards the state of society and the fate of the nation.
During the 1920s she found herself very close to power, because she was married at this time to Jan Jur-Gorzechowski, a close associate of Piłsudski, who served as chief of military police in Grodno. So she saw, when the new state was being formed, how the governing elite started to use old methods. She began to observe how former socialist activists and independence fighters turned into powerful politicians, treating political minorities in more or less the same fashion as they themselves had been treated, for example by the former tsarist authorities.
She takes an unnamed provincial place. Hanna Kirchner has more or less proved that it is based on Grodno. On the one hand it is a love story, a love triangle, involving Justyna’s ill-fated abortion, which leads to her depression and mental imbalance, which in turn leads to the final tragedy when she takes her revenge on Zenon. Nałkowska articulates no moral position on abortion, and it would be misguided to interpret the story as her judgment on Justyna’s actions, or as some kind of pro-life propaganda. Far from it. Rather, it’s about biology, and the link between biology and the psyche. Justyna’s case illustrates what can happen to a woman’s mind and emotions when the natural processes of maternity are interfered with. But this is does not amount to some general theory or panacea of motherhood. Many different kinds of mother are shown in the novel, including unwilling mothers and single mothers, of all social classes. What they have in common, however, is their betrayal, abandonment or sexual exploitation by men. Nałkowska continues her critique of the double standard.
But, at the same time, the novel is a critique of power: of the politics and social life of the interwar state as it functioned in a provincial backwater. Zenon’s role as mayor and his and other local politicians’ dictatorial suppression of a workers’ demonstration, caused by a factory closure, coincides with his increasingly desperate treatment of both Justyna and Elżbieta. The political dimension of this and other novels is usually underplayed, or not noticed by critics, in the West, where Nałkowska tends to be perceived as either as a writer about the Holocaust or as a feminist.
MG: One of the interesting and possibly controversial translation decisions you made when bringing Boundary into English was to keep Polish honorific forms, like pan or pani.
UP: My own feeling is that Mr, Mrs and Miss sound very English, too domesticating, although other translators may not agree with me. The other thing is that you cannot comfortably use these forms with forenames. So in Boundary there is a problem with Pani Cecylia and similar cases. If you remove the Pani and just say Cecylia, it does not have quite the same connotations. So I decided to keep this but I use capital letters, to conform to English written style. I think this decision does more to preserve the Polish flavour. And if it is acceptable in translations to use Madame, Mademoiselle and Monsieur, or Herr and Frau, then why not Pan and Pani?
MG: In the Polish language, the opposition between pan vs ty [formal and informal ‘you’] forms used to carry a class distinction, so this is also about power.
UP: The class distinctions are very important in Boundary. And the use of ‘ty’ to address servants or farm workers, for instance, is one indication of this. It is difficult to translate these forms into English because we have the one word ‘you’ – so other methods, such as the tone of address, have to be employed in order to convey the nuances. Cecylia Kolichowska’s house provides an interesting metaphor here: different social classes live on different floors, on top or underneath one another, the bourgeois family (Cecylia, Elżbieta and their servants) lives on the ground floor in relative comfort while the poorest tenants inhabit the attic or the dark, dank basement, where several families live in abject poverty, without work and no means of support, often also sick.
MG: Polish surnames and sometimes place-names, their difficult orthography, can also be seen as a translation problem. Because in a way, how is the reader supposed to identify with a character when they can't even say their name correctly?
UP: Right. This problem is frequently brought to my attention. I have provided an appendix for this particular edition which gives a guide to translation for readers unfamiliar with Polish. I gave the translation to two people who know a lot about translated literature, but do not know Polish, before I gave it to the publisher, because I wanted their reactions. And they both said: if you want to take this literature out of its ghetto, which is of course exactly what I do want to do, you have to do something about the names: there are too many of them and they are unpronounceable. So I thought: I cannot translate them, introduce some silly alternative transcription into the text, or substitute other names. I have to leave them as they are. So this is why I provide a list of characters and explain how you pronounce them, the same with the street names. And I also explain a few other things. Readers who feel this sort of thing is unnecessary can ignore the appendix.
MG: This shows just how many problems a translator of Polish literature encounters. Russian which is a big literature, and surely better domesticated in the English-speaking world, does not have this problem with names.
UP: This is something I actually mention in the appendix. Russian is written in a different alphabet and there are accepted forms of transliteration which are adapted to the English ear. Most translations of the Russian classics tend to give a list of characters with names transliterated accordingly. But Polish is written already in the Latin alphabet, so it is assumed that it is accessible, but it is not. Polish orthography has many diacritics, and several consonants are pronounced differently from in English. So I have decided on this occasion that this is a way of overcoming the problem. But we will see how it is received.
MG: Can contrasting Polish and Russian realist literatures, and their very different degrees of popularity with English readers throughout the 20th century, be instructive in how we understand Polish literature?
UP: I am not sure. What really determined the initial British interest in Russian writers, and their reception at the beginning of the 20th century, was the commitment of individual translators, people who had lived in Russia. Constance Garnett, for example, translated over 70 classic works. Then there were Aylmer and Maude who translated a large portion of Tolstoy. And then the Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, which published several classics (Woolf herself translated Dostoevsky’s The Devils). So Russian literature was immediately promoted by the right people, who had influence in shaping tastes.
I think the problem with a lot of Polish texts is that they are too focused on Poland itself. Obviously every writer is located in their own culture and language, one cannot get away from this. Great works like Crime and Punishment and Dead Souls are also strongly rooted in place. The contemporary Russian politics is very important, and yet they have a philosophical or universal dimension that appeals to anybody. I read those Russian classics when I was 14 or 15 years old. I had no idea what Russia was like, although I learned from those works, but this was not what determined their appeal. I had a similar experience when I first read Orzeszkowa, Nałkowska, Żmichowska, Dąbrowska or Prus, but only because I could read the language.
MG: Could there be other reasons as well?
UP: I also think the fact that Polish is not a commonly known language outside Poland or immigrant communities is also a factor. Very few people who do not have Polish background learn it. This is changing to a certain extent, for example, recently at Cambridge. Most of the people who are studying there on the new courses are not in fact of Polish origin. But for a long time I have really felt like an outsider. Many of the translators who do a lot to promote Polish literature, such as Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Bill Johnston, Benjamin Paloff, Bill Martin and others, like me have no Polish background. This is a relatively limited range of people. As outsiders, we can appreciate what elements are not exclusively Polish, what is important apart from that, and what might appeal to American, British or other English-speaking readers.
I think it’s fair to say that since WWII, Polish émigré circles have tended to dominate American and British reception of Polish literary texts. In Britain, I have even had situations where Poles have said to me: ‘How can you understand this? You are not Polish,’ the implication being that I have not understood it ‘correctly’. As I see it, rightly or wrongly, there is a determination by these circles to keep the heritage exclusive, which then means that it does not get included in wider literary debates or in comparative contexts. But there is no reason in my view why a lot of Polish texts could not be introduced to a more general European or world stage. This is a serious hurdle difficult to overcome – because the insistence on an exclusive, usually Polonocentric interpretation actually works against the wider reception of this literature; it is in danger of making Polish literature more parochial that it genuinely is.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, May-July 2016